Home Worship Planning History of Hymns History of Hymns: 'Lift Him Up'

History of Hymns: 'Lift Him Up'

By Donté Ford

Johnson oatman jr
Johnson Oatman Jr.

“Lift Him Up”
by Johnson Oatman Jr.
Songs of Zion, 59

How to reach the masses,
those of every birth,
For an answer, Jesus gave the key;
“And I, if I be lifted up from the earth,
Will draw all men unto me.”

Lift Him up, lift Him up;
Still He speaks from eternity:
“And I, if I be lifted up from the earth,
Will draw all men unto me.”

Don’t exalt the preacher, don’t exalt the pew,
Preach the Gospel simple, full, and free;
Prove Him and you will find the promise is true,
“I’ll draw all men unto me.”

Methodist Episcopal preacher and elder Johnson Oatman Jr. (1856–1922) was born on the east coast of the United States in New Jersey. Though he did not become a licensed gospel preacher until the age of 19, Oatman grew up in church listening to the beautiful melodies sung by his father. A prolific hymn writer, Oatman has written no less than 7,000 hymn texts, of which the following are particularly well known: “Count Your Blessings” (The Cokesbury Hymnal, 216), “Hallelujah Side,” “No, Not One,” and “Lift Him Up.” “Higher Ground” (“I’m pressing on the upward way”—The Cokesbury Hymnal, 200) is his most published hymn. These hymns remain staples in African American hymnals and are vital contributions to the heart songs of African American congregations.

The various stanzas of “Lift Him Up” address what, why, warning, and way. The first stanza sets the orientation of this hymn as evangelical. Oatman quotes Jesus’ words in John 12:32, in which Christ foretells the pain of his death (crucifixion), yet the power of that same death: “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me” (KJV). This is not the only time Jesus makes this reference. In John 3:14, he compared his pending crucifixion to the brazen serpent lifted in the wilderness by Moses, as Moses had been instructed by God.

Stanza one asks a question, then gives the answer to the “what” of this hymn: lift Jesus up; this command is reinforced by the refrain.

Stanza two begins by providing the answer to “why.” Oatman declares humanity’s desire for Jesus. By personifying the world and abstracting humanity, Oatman proclaims Christ, the Living Bread (John 6: 51), as the satisfaction of the world’s hunger. Contextually, both in this hymn and in related scriptural references, it is evident that Christ is essential to humanity’s restoration to God. However, it might be of theological merit to view Christ as redeemer of all creation. This adds a new perspective to Oatman’s use of the term “world” (stanza four). Nevertheless, given Oatman’s place in the last half of the nineteenth century into the twentieth, he was likely not suggesting any such reading. In fact, evidence that he is a product of his age is seen in his use of “men” for humankind. Songs of Zion appropriately adjusts the language in some places and provides alternatives for others to render a more inclusive version of the text.

Opening with a word of caution, stanza three provides a warning. Oatman reminds believers to keep priorities in check.

Don’t exalt the preacher, don’t exalt the pew,
Preach the Gospel simple, full, and free;

Neither the gospel preacher nor the church pew should hinder the gospel message from being shared or heard; neither should take precedence over the gospel. Oatman says that we prove or demonstrate Jesus and maintain faith in the words that Jesus shared: “I’ll draw all [people] unto me.” While it is hard to say what could have been occurring during Oatman’s time, the words of this stanza and the entire hymn transcend time and remain relevant to this generation and the ones to come. The final stanza provides the way or how by encouraging Oatman’s brothers and sisters in Christ to make holiness a lifestyle. If we do so, the world sees Jesus in our actions, not just our words. Perhaps Oatman was reminded of Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:16: “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven” (KJV).

The tune, LIFT HIM UP, composed by Georgia native, music educator, and publisher Benjamin Burke Beall (1874–1945), masterfully captures the sentiment of the text, particularly the refrain. The refrain employs brilliant word painting; as the text resounds “lift Him up,” the contour of the melody does just that. Across the two iterations of “lift Him up,” the melody ascends, first at the interval of a perfect fourth, then a major third. The melody reaches its highest point, landing on a high F, then descends. Perhaps this melodic motion embodies the “eternity,” from where Jesus still speaks—eternity being interpreted both as a place where God abides but also affirming the timelessness of Jesus’ words and message. As Jesus figuratively speaks (And I, if . . .), the line begins with a brief ascending figure and then descends – somewhat paradoxically, as he utters: “I be lifted. . .”. Just as the phrase ends: “. . . up from the earth”; thus, the melody once again ascends, starting with the second syllable of “lifted,” aiding the overall narrative by musically conveying Christ being lifted up from the earth.

Johnson Oatman Jr. was educated in New Jersey at Herbert’s Academy, Vincentown, and New Jersey Collegiate Institute, Bordentown. He was ordained in the Methodist Episcopal Church after joining at age 19, where he served as a local preacher without a specific pastoral assignment. He worked with his father in the mercantile business. After his father’s death, Johnson Oatman Jr. established an insurance business in Mount Holly, New Jersey. He began writing gospel song texts around 1892. His songs were set to music by some of the leading gospel music composers of his day, including John R. Sweeney (1837–1899), William J. Kirkpatrick (1838–1921), Charles H. Gabriel (1856–1932), and E.O. Excell (1851–1921).

For Additional Reading

Suzanne Bratt and J. Richard Watson, “Johnson Oatman, Jr.” The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press, http://www.hymnology.co.uk/j/johnson-oatman,-jr (accessed November 12, 2020).

“Lift Him Up,” Hymnary.org, https://hymnary.org/text/how_to_reach_the_masses (accessed November 12, 2020).

Donté Ford is Assistant Professor of Music and Associate Chaplain for Worship Arts at Wheaton College (Illinois). He is also a Ph.D. student in musicology with a minor in choral conducting at the University of Arizona and an alumnus of the Master of Sacred Music program (2016), Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, where he was a student of Drs. Christopher Anderson and C. Michael Hawn.

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